UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – has a deep and wide view of traditional knowledge and practices of sustainability. Not readily apparent inside the labyrinthine UN system, Unesco’s Culture sector has within it the section on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which helps preserve, conserve and revitalise these practices.
The term “cultural heritage” has changed content considerably in recent decades, with much of that change having come about thanks to the conventions developed by Unesco. Although “cultural heritage” is usually seen as monuments, buildings of antiquity and sites of historical importance or natural significance, it also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.
In this framework, the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage brings together such knowledge – sometimes well documented and living, sometimes in grave danger of being extinguished. These are organised under what are called the Lists of the Convention. In this series, I will pick out those practices and expressions of knowledge that have to do with cultivation systems, agricultural ecologies and the community cultures surrounding food.
01. Mibu no Hana Taue, ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan
‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is an agricultural ritual in which people worship the deity of rice fields, and pray for a good growth and abundant harvest of the rice crops for the year through ploughing fields, and transplanting rice seedlings. The Mibu community, located in a mountainous area of Western Japan, has developed and transmitted “Mibu no Hana Taue.” Both the Mibu and neighbouring Kawahigashi communities have been areas of rice cropping for a long time.
‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is carried out on the first Sunday of June every year after actual transplantations in the community are completed. Villagers gather at a large rice field, specially kept in reserve for the ritual. The deity of rice fields is welcomed, and a series of agricultural works such as ploughing, preparation for the transplantation and the actual transplantation are demonstrated in the presence of the deity. On the day of the ritual, villagers bring more than a dozen cattle to Mibu Shrine to be dressed with elaborately decorated saddles called Hanagura and a colourful necklace.
The cattle are then equipped with agricultural implements called Manga, and pulled into the rice field, following a man with a sacred stick in his hand. The man who manages the first cattle in line is called Omouji or Omouji-zukai. He skilfully controls the cattle to plough the rice field. This is an honourable role in ‘Mibu no Hana Taue.’ When most of the ploughing is completed, girls called Saotome begin to prepare for the transplantation. They wear colourful dresses, and hats called Suge-gasa. They take the seedlings that grow at the edge of the rice field and put them into a case called Naebune while singing a song under the conduct of an elder man, called Sambai.
After the ploughing and preparation for the transplantation are completed, a man called Eburitsuki begins to level the rice field with an implement, called Eburi. It is said that the deity of rice fields rests on Eburi. Transplantation begins in the presence of the deity. Saotome aligned with Sambai transplant the seedlings one by one, walking backwards. While the Sambai sings a leading song, locally considered as a parent song, with lengthwise-cut bamboo called Sasara in his hands, Saotome sing another song, locally considered as a child song.
Eburitsuki and the person who carries the seedlings in Naebune follow Saotome, and level the rice field as the seedlings are planted. A musical band follows them, and plays the drums, flutes, and small gongs accompanying the songs of Sambai and Saotome. Once the transplantation is completed, Eburi is placed upside down in some water, and three bunches of rice seedlings are put on it. Some say that the deity of rice fields resides in this Eburi, while others say that the deity launches from it and goes back to the heavens. In this way, an abundant harvest of rice can be expected.
‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ has been transmitted as an agricultural ritual indispensable to the Mibu and Kawahigashi communities. The people in both communities gather for this ritual to transplant the rice seedlings in the presence of the deity of rice fields, and pray for an abundant harvest. The ritual features the fundamentals of the Japanese lifestyle and culture that make the ritual’s social functions and meanings important. The farmers and local people of the Mibu and Kawahigashi communities have preserved and transmitted ‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ as an agricultural ritual.
The elderly called Sambai are in charge of a smooth execution of the entire ritual. They are familiar with the songs and music for rice planting, and belong to the Association for the Preservation of Mibu no Hana Taue. Some even say that the deity of rice fields rests upon them. ‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is an agricultural ritual carried out on a specially reserved rice field by habitants of the Mibu and Kawahigashi communities together in a vibrant way every year. It is said to have declined during the Meiji period. Later, however, people became eager to pass it on the future generation as a valuable element of cultural heritage, and the ritual has become quite active up to today. Therefore, the people in both communities consider the ritual as part of their own cultural heritage.
‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ dates back to before the Edo period, and has been transmitted from generation to generation. The people in the Mibu and Kawahigashi communities have gathered every year to transplant rice seedlings at the season of rice transplantation when rice cropping enters its crucial stage. It inevitably gives them a sense of identity. The ritual assures an abundant harvest in these communities. As a result, it gives them a strong sense of continuity.
In order to pass down the knowledge and skills concerning ‘Mibu no Hana Taue’, practice sessions of the ritual’s songs and music are held regularly for the pupils at Mibu Elementary School. Many of the current Saotome and music players also come from these practice sessions. ‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ does not include any features leading to sexual or racial discrimination, and it has no fear of provoking intolerance or exclusion of specific religious or ethnic groups. Therefore, inscription of this element on the Representative List is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals. It is also compatible with the requirements of sustainable development, as it does not cause an excessive collection or usage of specific natural resources or materials.